Driving Innovation in a Fast-Growing Industry: The Importance of Organizational Collaboration



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Succeeding in product management and innovation while our industries and markets are changing around us is something we deal with every day. As the saying goes, “The only constant is change.” That’s what it feels like sometimes as product managers and product leaders. We rarely have the luxury of a slow-moving market. We must constantly be on top of changing market dynamics and evolving customer needs while still trying to manage the day-to-day process of developing and supporting products. It’s one of the things that make product management so difficult but also so rewarding when we get it right.

This episode of the Masters of Product Management podcast features a conversation between JJ Rorie and Kevin Wunder, Senior Director, Product Management of Loveland Innovations.

Key Points:

  1. Break the silos! Organize weekly meetings that would metaphorically represent a “venn diagram” to steer the direction of your product. This means bringing the voices who represent the product, the technology, the customer, and the business needs all together in one room to ensure that there is the ultimate balance of product capabilities, market needs, and customer needs.

  2. Ask yourself: What is the opportunity cost of going down that product path? Does it outweigh the attention taken from other products?

  3. “No matter how large the organization, I don’t know how you can afford not to be in touch, and not to drive collaboration as a cross-functional team.”

[00:00:25] JJ: Hello, this is JJ Rorie, Vice President at Sequent Learning Networks. In our Masters of Product Management podcast, we tap into the experiences of people who work in and around product management to help you learn and grow in your product management career. Our discussion today centers around something that all of us deal with daily: succeeding in product management and innovation while our industries and markets are changing around us. As the saying goes, the only constant is change. That’s what it feels like sometimes, as product managers and product leaders; we rarely have the luxury of a slow-moving market. We must constantly be on top of changing market dynamics and evolving customer needs, while still trying to manage the day-to-day process of developing and supporting products. It’s one of the things that makes product management so difficult, but also so rewarding when we get it right. 


[00:01:18] JJ: One of the keys to success is realizing that we, product managers, aren’t alone on an island. We have a team of cross-functional partners to lean on, and our guest today is here to share his experience in some concrete ways that his team has been able to succeed in this complex environment. Kevin Wonder is the senior director of product at Loveland Innovations. He is responsible for driving product strategy for imaging Loveland innovations drone and data analytics solutions. If you ever get a chance, go check it out; it’s a very cool product. Kevin has spent most of his career in fast-growing and startup businesses. His love for solving market problems led him through a slew of roles where he developed marketing strategies, steered trendsetting tech, and has had the privilege to work with some great teams along the way. When he’s not working his product muscles, he’s coaching a local crossfit gym, volunteering with local youth groups, and spending time with his wife, three wild boys, and beautiful daughter. And one other thing about Kevin: he’s from Maui and has promised to give me some tips on my upcoming trip to Hawaii. So, Kevin, thank you so much for joining me today. 


[00:02:25] Kevin: JJ, my pleasure. Thanks so much for having me. 


[00:02:27] JJ: You bet. So, to set the stage for everyone listening: just tell us a little bit about your products, and who they’re for, and what they do. 


[00:02:35] Kevin: Sure thing, JJ. As you mentioned earlier, our product imaging is described as a drone analytic solution. What that means in practical terms is that imaging allows our customers to inspect roofs and properties with automated drone technology, as well as photo-capture tools facilitated through an IOS device. Using this data that they capture in inspection, we create a digital asset—a digital representation, if you will, of that property. This comes in the form of a photo-realistic 3D model that is created using the image you gathered in an inspection. And they obviously get to use all the high-resolution imagery captured on the device and in the drone. Imaging then provides our customers a set of features to help them analyze that data. So, some of these are simple and straightforward, like the ability to annotate photographs or create a report. Some were exotic, like the ability to generate measurements of a roof of walls or an area of a property. And some are just downright cool and nerdy, like the ability to quickly identify and quantify damage on a roof from a structure, using artificial intelligence and deep learning models that we’ve built internally. And lastly, we provide a number of data outputs that enable them to take action in their respective workflows. 


[00:03:46] Kevin: And so, we serve three verticals. The first is insurance-carrier specifically, in their property and casualty lines of business. We have some of the top 25 national carriers, as well as a number of regional carriers, using our product. They’re using the imaging to lower loss-adjustment expenses, reduce the time it takes to settle claims, provide a better experience for their customers. The second industry we work with is roofing contractors. They’re looking to basically generate more business through more inspections—better inspection data to get to the homeowner and property owners. And the third: a lot of solar teams use our products—so, solar survey and design teams. They wanted to decrease their overall creation costs. They do that through more timely and accurate survey data that pours quickly into their design process. 


[00:04:32] JJ: That’s great. Thanks for sharing that. That helps set the stage. So, it sounds fascinating, right? You’re actually disrupting some legacy industries, if you will, as well as touching into some newer industries, like solar. I can only imagine that it’s a very fast-moving type of industry and type of world you live in. So, as you and I have discussed in the past, we’re big believers in the importance of having a cross-functional product team to help manage the business of a product or a product line. Your organization has been very successful in utilizing a cross-functional steering committee model; so, I’ve enjoyed learning more about your success there. Can you share with the audience about that steering committee? How did it start within Loveland?


[00:05:21] Kevin: Yeah. You know, I think the concept behind it is rather simple; it’s stuff that you read in a textbook. It’s also things that you folks coach in your seminars and such. But essentially, we have a meeting once a week, where we gather stakeholders from our organization to discuss and literally to steer the direction of our product. Some of those little steering motions are short-term things reactive to a specific deal, reactive to a specific change in technology, or their long-term concepts as we think about our product and our vision of our product, and where we go with a roadmap. To me, it’s like a real-life example of how Venn diagrams work. We bring the voices who represent product and technology capabilities with the voices who represent our customer, and the voices who represent business needs. So, you’re looking at our executive leadership team, you’re looking at our development managers, you’re looking at all of our industry leads as well as our customer support Q/A teams. And essentially, the goal of that meeting is to ensure that we create the appropriate overlap in this Venn diagram of product capabilities, market needs, and customer needs. 


[00:06:40] Kevin: I think that lots of companies—and these are stakeholders in the company that tend to sit in unique silos—and this is a simple way for us to break down those silos. I think that none of these things are revolutionary; but I think it’s the way that we’ve been able to do it. And we’ve held pretty true to it since the beginning of our organization. You know, when we were young, it was really easy; I was brought on board and we just had 15 employees, and so we all were very aware of what the product was doing. We were always very aware of the product needs. But as our company grew, and our customer base grew, and our disciplines grew, it becomes easy to lose some of the magic that ties it together. And so we’ve just really made it a core part of our culture that this product-steering committee literally guides and steers all the decisions made with the product. 


[00:07:38] JJ: It’s amazing. I love the visual of a real-life Venn diagram; that’s a great way to say that. So, what are some of the mechanics of the committee that you believe may be critical to its success?


[00:07:50] Kevin: I think, one: it comes back to the roots of our organization. Our founding team are very experienced in one of our core industries, in insurance. I think that one of the key parts of that mechanics is you have to have domain expertise—both in the industries that you serve, as well as the technologies that you are building into your product. That’s why we have our executive leadership team. We have the person who oversees all of our insurance sales. The person who oversees all of our general construction and roofing sales. The person who oversees all of our solar; our customer support, because if we have that domain expertise, then we can, in the best way possible, replicate our client needs there. 


[00:08:36] Kevin: Then there are other things, like it’s very clear in that room that ego isn’t allowed. We sit and we negotiate priorities between different industries. And when you have a relatively small development team and you have relatively limited resources, we sometimes have to make really hard decisions about where we put our time. And sometimes that means that one of our industries, for a short period of time, is going to feel like they’re not getting a lot of attention. Our industry leaders put their egos aside because they recognize it for the betterment of the organization. And then there’s lots of transparency—one thing that we’ve really tried to do there is, when you sit and you try to get a sales rep in a room with someone who’s like a nerdy developer, sometimes they don’t speak the same language. 


[00:09:24] JJ: Right. 


[00:09:26] Kevin: And what we’ve tried to do is to create a really interesting scenario—I guess, industry dynamic of show-and-tell, where our industry people show a lot of the actual problems their clients are running into, with examples of reports they’re creating; examples and anecdotes of stories they have directly with the person developing technology, and vice versa: the person who developed the technology showing what the capabilities of the tech they’re working on can do. And then, in that room, all these ideas start sprouting up, of What if we did this? and What if we could solve this problem by doing this? And it’s just one of the ways that that feeds the innovation in our organization. 


[00:10:02] JJ: I love that, and it makes everyone realize they’re on the same team; it’s not your function versus my function, or even in silos, so that’s a great example. Thanks. What results have you seen from implementing this cross-functional-team model?


[00:10:17] Kevin: You know, I think that the greatest result for us, obviously, is customer adoption—and more particularly, that customers are recognizing value. One anecdote of that: earlier this year, we had a really, really large deal that was kind of sitting in the wings, and we were getting pretty close to closing it. We had a domain expert come into that product-steering meeting and say, “Hey, listen, in order for us to close this deal,” and by the way, he clearly mapped a good amount of revenue to three very specific changes we needed to make in a portion of our app. And it was one of those—hey, we were mid-sprint; we were in mid-development cycle. We sat down as a steering committee. We discussed what is the opportunity cost if we go down this route? How does it delay other revenue? Can we deliver on something quickly? And it literally was a two-and-a-half-week turnaround of some net new features in our product that won us a significant amount of business. So I think ultimately, when we think about the key results, it’s our ability to be nimble and to react very quickly to significant customer need. And our customers appreciate that; they appreciate that we can react to their needs if they can show a salient business case for it. And so it creates a really good relationship to the customer when we do that. 


[00:11:48] JJ: That’s a great example. So, I often talk to my clients about how, when new features or new ideas or new opportunities come in—and they always come in, in the middle of some development; some sprint, right?—we’re never idle, so they’re always coming in during the middle—


[00:12:07] Kevin: It’s never convenient. 


[00:12:08] JJ: Yes, exactly! Exactly. 


[00:12:09] Kevin: There’s never a convenient time. 


[00:12:09] JJ: Exactly right. But it’s our job to understand the business of the product. And I love the way you said it—the opportunity cost—because we will stop doing one thing to do another thing; but that other thing may bring more value to the customer. And in your example, it did. And so, sure, we make the business decision to stop doing something for a little while that we had on the docket, but we made a very strategic decision. And having that cross-functional conversation is the way that we, as a business, can make those decisions; so, perfect example. Thank you. 


[00:12:43] Kevin: Yeah! You know, I think—if I may, I think one of the—as I think about that committee, you know, you asked about some of the mechanics of it. The two numbers that drive us the most in there are: what are the revenue opportunities? Because to us, that represents not necessarily dollars, but it represents customer desire. It represents customer need and customer want. And then, what are the opportunity costs? And a lot of our conversations are based around those two metrics, so that we can really understand how it’s going to impact our customers, and then our company. 


[00:13:17] JJ: Yeah, that’s great. I think more organizations need to look at it that way. And at the end of the day, it’s simple: it doesn’t always end up as simple as it is, but those two metrics are the key ones, so thank you. So, I have maybe a chicken-and-egg question for you: It sounds like this model collaboration has become a core tenet of the culture there. Is that the case; or do you believe that you already had a collaborative culture to begin with, and maybe that allowed for this type of committee to take hold and gain traction? 


[00:13:51] Kevin: That’s a great question, and I’ve actually been thinking a lot about that over the last couple of weeks. You know, I think that the idea of a customer-centric view on our product has always been a core tenet of our company. At the beginnings of a product like ours, when we first came to market, the mandate was pretty clear. It was, “Hey, let’s figure out how to do an inspection with a drone.” And that was the first thing that we had to figure out. And the team was small, and so everyone was involved. It was very collaborative. That culture, though, has had to change a little bit as our capabilities and our product have gotten broader, as well as the industries we serve have gotten broader. So, every new feature we introduce, every new technology we introduce, right? 


[00:14:42] Kevin: So, we went from automated flight to “Let’s add measurements and 3D modeling into our product,” then, “Let’s add A.I. and deep learning into our product.” Then we added another feature of how we can—a better way to get ground imagery for customers. And we added all these features, and then we started with insurance. Then we brought in roofing contractors. We brought on solar. And now, all of a sudden, individually, we’re less in touch with both what our product does and its core competencies, as well as what our customers need. And so we’ve had to change from a “Hey, we’ve got a small team that is looking at the product” to a “Wow, our product-steering committee went from—I think, when we started, it was, you know, of the 15 of the employees, there were maybe nine of us. So now, it’s nearly doubled in size as the company has gotten bigger because we’ve had to make sure that we had the right voices in place to, one: understand customer needs, and two: ensure that every part of the organization felt that they were collaborating on the product. 


[00:15:46] JJ: Makes total sense. Thank you. So, I’ve had enough of these conversations to know that there’s probably someone out there listening who’s thinking to themselves, “Yeah, I work for a $20-billion organization with five business units and a hundred thousand employees; this just isn’t going to work for us. We can’t implement this cross-functional team, as rosy as you guys may make it sound.” What would you say to that person? 


[00:16:13] Kevin: You know, this may sound like a pretty naive statement, but I think my response would be, “I don’t know how you can afford not to keep doing that.” I recognize that products get into a bit of a groove, for lack of better terminology—when you have one get the critical mass, the product just works, and customers start morphing their workflow and their ideas of how it should work to your preference. Where that gets scary, though, is that as technology innovates around you, if you’re not collaborating the way that you need to, and you’re not hearing your customers’ needs appropriately, and that’s not getting back to the right people, I think it’s really easy to get out of touch. And I think that there are a number of examples and case studies—I don’t want to call them out specifically on a podcast—where I think we’ve all seen some of that happen: where a large organization has got a little out of touch and they’ve had to retool to become more customer-centric. And so, naive young product guy in me would say, “No matter how large the organization, I don’t know how you can afford not to be in touch, and not to drive collaboration this way.” 


[00:17:23] JJ: Yeah, I agree with you. I think it’s even more important in a large organization because, like you said, it is easy to get in those ruts, or grooves, or whatever we couch them as. It’s easy for us to forget that we have partners, and that those partners are there for us to help drive the success of that product. And, you know, again, think of it as a board of directors for your product, or product line, or product family. And I think it’s critical for those large organizations to at least put their agile hat on—and “agile” with a small A, right?—the flexible hat on, to make sure that they do that. So again, I agree with you. Thank you so much. So, Kevin, such a wonderful discussion today. Thank you so much, Kevin Wonder, for sharing your experiences with us. We can all learn something from what the team at Loveland Innovations has done. So thank you again for joining us. 


[00:18:21] Kevin: JJ, thank you. It’s been a great pleasure to speak with you today. 


[00:18:23] JJ: You bet! So, thank you for joining us on Masters of Product Management, powered by Sequent Learning Networks. I am JJ Rorie and I look forward to speaking with you on the next episode. 


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